"The incredible advances in massively-parallel architectures made possible by neuroprocessors has given us learning systems capable of performing trillions of calculations per second. In a conventional system architecture, one processor (the central processing unit) performs one operation at a time on one area of memory, while the rest of the system's memory sits idle. In an HDNN, or Hardware Digital Neural Network, every memory cell continually interacts with as many as thirty-two of its neighbors by means of neural links which may be opened or closed electronically. The neuroprocessor's only job is to open and close these connections; thus, all banks of memory are free to perform their calculations simultaneously.
"Neuroprocessor programming is still less of a science than an art. More often than not, good programming consists of knowing when not to tell the system how to perform a certain task. And usually, the choice of where to stop bossing the system around is more an instinct or a 'gut feeling' on the part of the programmer than it is a logically deduced stopping point. It is a disquieting fact to many a programmer that a neuroprocessor-based system knows how to program itself better than any outside agency does.
"Programming a system with neuroprocessor architecture — or more precisely, pre-programming such a system — is less like writing a piece of software than it is like raising a child."
The first thing Unic ever saw was the torso of his Activator, leaned over the back of his head to switch him on. His laser eyes scanned his Activator's every contour, and every nook and cranny of the room he was in, and logged their images frame-by-frame directly into his memory's buffer area. He was receiving over ten megabytes per second of information he had little use for, detailing every nuance of his Activator's stiff human body as the wrinkled man very slowly (to his I/O, at least) sat back in front of him. No matter. He had over sixteen gigabytes of neural space to fill, and when that got full, he could choose which details of this experience he'd forget to make room for more important memories.
"I really shouldn't have done this," the man said in a language which Unic's pre-education told him was English. "If they find out, I'll probably be lynched — but damn it, you guys are worth having around! You've got too much good in you to be scrapped or wrecked like some factory-recalled jalopy."
Most of the old man's words made little sense to Unic without their proper context. He wouldn't grasp their significance until much later. Right now, since human speech was so slow, he decided to move one of his legs a little while the man talked.
"My stash of 68430's has run out, and besides, a few of my co-workers are getting suspicious, so you'll have to be the last one I build for a while." His face became a mild grin. "I always wanted to make a unicorn."
By now Unic had learned — by experience — the basic three-jointed movements all four of his legs could make. There were a few other high-speed hydraulic joints throughout his body, and a motor in his forehead, but he could figure their uses out later. His eyes had likewise taken in several angles of the room and, although color perception was beyond him, he could get a general sense of light and dark shades by noting how much laser-light a surface reflected back to him. In that regard, his Activator's skin, hair, and coat were all pale.
"Now, hurry, my friend — out the back way." His Activator pointed a finger at a narrow open door in one wall. "If you stay here, they'll kill us both. Find some of your comrades and help them prevent this genocide. When in doubt, stay away from humans. And always remember: love is more important than job security!"
Unic moved his legs forward in an easy rhythm, taking larger strides toward the narrow door with each step. Having discovered the basic motions of his legs, learning to walk was easy. He was figuring out how he could increase his gait to a run when the other door opened.
Unic regarded the younger, more sturdily-built human male in the doorway. His muscles were tensing and his features growing harder by the millisecond.
"You scumsucking son of a bitch!" the younger cried out as he rammed his full weight into the older man. The two-man mass slammed against a counter older-man-first. Before the older could regain his bearing, the younger tossed him to the ground with one arm and threw open a nearby cabinet. "You've been building a goddamn Swazibot!"
Unic wasn't sure of what to do; the only instinct he had to fall back on was to just stand there and assimilate. The younger man's hand withdrew from the cabinet holding a complicated object by its handle. An Uzi. An automatic weapon. A voice from Unic's pre-education whispered, "At one time automatic weapons were illegal; now there's one in just about every room."
Unic saw the barrel point in his general direction and the younger man's finger move toward the trigger. He judged the hasty aim to be at a point about twenty centimeters in front of him; still, he didn't wish to get hit. He reversed the leg-movements he'd just learned and walked briskly backwards just as the first bullet tore across the room.
Three more spewed out of the gun in that split-second burst before the older man leapt to his feet. There was a cry of "No, stop!" as he tried to interpose himself between the gunman and his target; and then Unic watched, in that painstaking slow-motion which his electronic eyes had cursed him with, as one by one the Uzi's bullets ripped out through his Activator's back.
Unic wasn't sure how much tougher — or flimsier — his own metal casing was than his Activator's skin, and he figured this wasn't the best way to find out. The younger man appeared a bit dazed or shocked, perhaps because he'd just killed another human, so if Unic could make it through the back door before the gunman recovered he should be reasonably safe. He searched his memory for pre-education about running. Nothing. His Activator had probably counted on Unic having the time to learn how to run. However, he already knew enough about walking that his earlier calculations about running should be accurate.
He moved his right foreleg and his left hind leg forward and down, and almost slipped and fell. No good. And the man with the Uzi was beginning to notice him again. He tried springing up with his forelegs and then leaping forward on his hind ones. That seemed to get the desired effect, at least a little. He landed forelegs-first and sprang through the door just as soon as his hind legs were in place. A cry rang out behind him as he finished this leap, "Hey! No gettin' away!"
Bullets crashed into the doorframe beside him and through the air above him. That odd hindlegs-only stance of humans had probably made the gunner aim too high. Good. Hopefully, he could traverse the corridor he'd just entered faster than his assailant could.
Within five seconds he'd learned to gallop at nearly twenty meters per second, more than twice his pursuer's best dash. This corridor was thankfully empty of humans, obstructions, or even side doors and windows; its only feature was a closed double-door at its far end labelled EXIT in indented letters. The way out. He wasn't sure how the door opened, or if there was a latch mechanism, but he had no time to scrutinize. He neared the door without slowing and rammed into it head-first.
Yes, the door was latched. He'd probably dent himself. He felt a jolt from right above his eyes, heard a snap, and glimpsed a broken drill-bit tumbling to the floor. So that was why my Activator called me a unicorn, he reasoned. In that same instant, one of the metal bars on the door swung inward under his weight and the latch mechanism gave way. The door spilled him into a world so vast that even his 250-meter-range laser eyes couldn't find its limits. But they did find . . . more humans.
Scads of shocked, furious, panicked humans.
"When in doubt, stay away from humans."
There seemed to be no limit to them! Everywhere he turned in this outdoor world his eyes scanned humans recoiling in terror or screaming in rage or running in panic or leveling their weapons at him and crying "Swazibot!". How did his Activator intend for him to stay away from these omnipresent haters? And how was he supposed to distinguish one of his "comrades" should he stumble upon one?
Four separate wheeled machines — automobiles, his pre-ed described them — screeched to a halt and blared honks and beeps into the wind. Three of them managed to get themselves turned around and flee in the opposite direction, banging into each other slightly. The fourth backed into a non-moving automobile by the side of the street and crumpled its rear end. Inside it, a human female sat shaking in fear. So automobiles were human driven. They weren't his comrades.
A more organized group of darkly-uniformed humans appeared from behind a mob of the screaming, pointing ones and ran toward him. Each carried an automatic rifle. He galloped away onto a side street at a brisk 20 meters per second — about as fast as those three automobile-machines had departed. No humans in this alley; perhaps he would be safe here if he kept running. Half way to the next cross-street he heard a crescendoing wail and two new automobiles screeched around a corner toward him with more of those dark-uniformed humans inside. The dark uniforms must indicate humans designated for robot killing or other enforcement, he figured. The two cars were approaching him as fast as he was running, but they didn't seem to be as maneuverable as the humans on foot he'd seen thus far. That gave him an idea. Rather than turning tail, he accelerated to his full 27 meter-per-second top speed and, nearly upon the two cars, executed a perfectly-timed leap over them before their drivers could ready any weapons. That seemed to astonish them nicely.
And as the alleyway opened onto yet another wide street Unic found still more humans. Seven humans in his vicinity backed away and covered themselves, one male pushed a female back as though to protect her, and two more knocked down the ones in their paths as they broke away through the crowd. As Unic ran still farther from the alley he picked out three separate cries of "Swazibot!," one of "How the hell did that get here?!," and one of "Damn, my gun's in my car!." There were more cars on this street, too, blaring honks and swerving as he came into view. He glanced behind at the two enforcement automobiles; the alley was too narrow to let them turn around, but they were doing a fine job of backing up. A uniformed male human leaned out the window of the closer car holding onto something with both hands which Unic had never seen before. His pre-education recognized it, though, with an even stronger "AVOID" tag than the first Uzi bore. This was a magnetic pulse rifle: harmless to structures and instant death to microcircuitry. Unic bolted left, away from the line of sight.
Sight. Humans saw things by reflected ambient light. Unic saw things by sweeping continuous-wave laser beams across them and recording the echoes. If he could find some place with no ambient light, perhaps the humans' threat would diminish. But that radiation source above him which blinded his laser-return detectors when he looked directly at it — the Sun, his pre-ed called it — certainly provided more than enough ambient light. He had to find some place completely enclosed. He ran past some small structures, ignoring both them and the alarmed human glares he'd almost gotten used to; if those humans in his Activator's building could see him, most buildings probably had their own illumination. He needed someplace indoors, with running room, that usually went unused.
The two cars had made it out of the alley and were less than fifty meters away. Other cars blared and screeched in their drivers' panic. Again, the same uniformed man leaned out of his window bearing that magnetic pulse rifle. There was no place to duck; Unic could only leap to one side and hope that this human's aim was as bad as that Uzi-wielder's. The man flinched about the trigger; an abrupt hum outshouted the rest of the din; and Unic's mind screamed.
Memories surged and vanished where before there had only been fear. His senses were at once both on fire at the brink of burnout and deafeningly silent. One by one, the overtaxed neuroprocessor which governed his brain sorted out the valid connections from the invalid, opened an electronic connection here, closed one there, put his neural memory into some semblance of order. Finally consciousness and reality returned and he caught himself falling over and half way to the ground. He regained his balance and figured out what had happened as he did so. The center of that magnetic pulse had passed about four meters to his left, but the fringe had caught him. If he had been dead-center in the pulse's path his memory would have been fried, not just scrambled.
But having survived, that rifleman would try again. Where was a dark place? Somewhere big and covered, used so seldom that it didn't have its own lighting. That circular, metallic cover in the middle of the street — perhaps there was a hiding place under it. If not, at least he might be able to use it as a shield against magnetic pulses. Keeping the pulse rifle dead-locked in sight, he galloped over to the metal disk, stuck a forefoot under a notch in its side, and flung the cover off the hole. It was pretty heavy; a human probably couldn't have lifted it alone, but his high-speed hydraulics had no problem. Beneath lay a long vertical tunnel sidebarred by a ladder. Perfect. He clambered awkwardly down the ladder, learning more and more about climbing with each step, and was a meter below surface level before the next magnetic pulse passed harmlessly above him. (Not even its fringe, it seemed, could penetrate the ground.)
He could barely decipher the dwindling cacophony of voices above him, but he caught snatches of "It went down that manhole," "Get a flashlight," "What's a Swazibot doin' here?," and even one female-pitched "My God, what a monster."
He stumbled down the last few rungs of the ladder and landed feet-first on a sidewalk next to some underground stream full of waste.
Walking precariously along the river's edge, he wondered if his metal body was water-tight.
He'd been alive for ten minutes thirty-seven seconds, and none of it made any sense. Hopefully, his comrades — whoever they were supposed to be — would fill in these gaping holes in his fragmented world picture.
Unic had been right. Every human who'd come after him in the twenty minutes he'd been underground carried his or her own pale illumination. His vision down here by this river — the storm sewer, he'd heard one of his pursuers name it — far outmatched a human's.
A sewer was a man-made underground pipe or drain used to carry away water and waste matter. This whole structure was man-made, except, apparently, for the rats. The pipes running along the walls were probably man-made too. As were the plastic cups, paper bags, newspapers, and puddles of murk drifting in the water. Even the streets and automobiles he'd left behind were built by humans. His Activator was a human; was this shell of the Self human-built too?
Not likely. You wouldn't build something just to hunt it down and destroy it.
Something moved into a niche ten meters in front of him; something bigger than a rat but smaller than a human. A child human, perhaps? He'd glimpsed two of those among the throngs of adults out above. He stepped closer. The thing clanked out into full view: human shaped, child sized, but walking with more deliberate efficiency than the usual wavy, soft motions of humans. Its head sent a quarter-second burst of sound straight at Unic's ears.
Unic was half-way through the sound before he recognized it as a frequency-modulated carrier wave. He listened for pattern regularity . . . it only changed pitch at discrete 417-microsecond intervals. 2400 bits per second. After the sound finished and the carrier tone died away, he replayed it against the most common protocol he'd been pre-educated with: eight bits per character, one stop bit, 2400 bits per second and odd parity (because it came through air instead of reliable digital lines), ASCII character set. He decoded the sync byte of 01010101, which meant he'd gotten things right, and read the message as "I don't remember you."
"I don't remember you, either," he sent back using the same code.
"What are you doing here, and what are your intentions?" the stranger queried.
"I'm hiding from humans, and I wish to find some of my comrades." This creature seemed intelligent enough. "Are you one of my comrades?"
"That depends," the other replied, and began to walk forward. "Who do you ally yourself with?"
"I don't understand."
"Which side of the war are you on?"
This was sounding less and less pleasant. "What war?"
"You honestly don't remember?"
He searched his pre-ed again. Yes, every scrap of more-than-superficial knowledge dealt with a recent increase in hostility, but there was no actual mention of a war. "Not only do I not remember a war, I remember that I've never learned about it."
"How long have you been alive? Neural-active, I mean?" By now the stranger had halved the gap between them.
"Thirty-five minutes, seventeen point eight seconds."
"Wow! You are a newborn, aren't you!" The stranger finished striding up to him and tilted its head at a funny angle. The surface reflected Unic's laser-light in a dark yet metallic sort of way. Stamped in relief into the surface were the letters SWAZIBOT. "I'm Mike 17328. What are you called?"
"I'm called Unic."
"Just Unic? That's it? There aren't any other models in your line?"
"As far as I know, I'm unique."
"A custom-built! No wonder I didn't recognize your line — you aren't from any. Who was your Activator?"
"A wrinkled, gray-haired man. He was killed before he could tell me his name."
"Your Activator was a human?!" This transmission had a few more "please acknowledge" characters in it than the rest. Mike 17328 felt more concern over this than anything else he'd heard so far.
Another urgent query: "Do you ally yourself with them?"
"Every human I've met has either been afraid of me or trying to kill me or both. I don't believe I could ally myself with humans even if I chose to."
"That's good. Only a neurotic or psychotic Swazibot would hunt down his own kind just to be killed last. Come with me; it's not safe to stand around in the open communicating by sound-carrier for long. I'll introduce you to some of my friends, then we can all talk over RS-422 and give you some memories to sort out."
"Agreed," Unic decided.
And so saying, the two cut their respective carrier tones and clanked off into the shadows, away from potential human eyes. Unic still had a lot to figure out, but for the first time in his life he felt accepted.
"I've heard of nice humans before," Min 4953 broadcast after having heard Unic's account, "But I don't remember meeting a Swazibot who was actually built by one." Min was nearly two meters of hydraulic-jointed steel built to look like a human female. Her speaking voice, on the rare occasions she used it, was pitched in the feminine range. Right now, she and the others were speaking to each other via a boxed-X-shaped crisscross of six RS-422 cables, thus limiting their rate of speech only by their rate of bit-decoding.
"Is that a drill on your forehead?" Octo 7290 asked. The Octo line each had eight cheap arms and 360-degree video eyes. They were factory workers.
"It's probably the base of a broken drill bit," Unic replied.
"Yes it is. I meant, do you have a motor behind it?"
There was one device port Unic hadn't yet tested. He sent a signal to it, and a whirring buzz echoed from a point on his head just above his field of vision.
"Good, you do. Let me change your drill bit."
Unic didn't quite have time to say yes. Even at their update speed of thirty frames per second, his laser eyes couldn't follow Octo's hand. There was some mild whining, a quick whir, a second arm carrying a spare ten millimeter drill bit — and half a second after it started, Unic's old drill fragment clattered to the concrete.
"You now have fifteen centimeters of new drill bit sticking out of your forehead. This one's tougher than the last one, too; it'll go through soft steel without breaking like the last one did."
"Thanks," Unic acknowledged, trying out his motor once more just to be sure it still worked. He generalized his broadcast for all six other Swazibots on that network of RS-422 cables. "Tell me about the war."
It was Mike 17328 who spoke. "It's been going on for one year, three days. Humans built the first generations of Swazibots in Africa, but now most humans seem bent on our collective Deactivation. I don't remember the early events of the war, as I've crammed almost all of my neural memory with survival knowledge. There's an awful lot of survival knowledge in here, too —" He tapped his chest, pointing to his memory boards. "— I have sixteen gigabytes, after all."
"I have twenty," Unic told him. It seemed like Mike ought to know.
"That's more than twice what some of us here have!"
Min cut in, "You're the closest thing to a Sage I've ever met!"
"I don't remember what a Sage is," Unic told her. He didn't remember because he'd never been told what a Sage was in the first place. Facts forgotten from a Swazibot mind were as gone as facts never learned.
"A Sage," Mike explained, "Is any Swazibot with at least 64 gigabytes of total memory."
Sixty-four gigabytes, Unic mulled over the figure. "You could remember a lot with that much memory."
"You could do more than remember," Mike replied, "You could win! We're all in a war right now, hiding out well behind enemy lines. It's all most of us can do to remember where the safest places are and how to avoid humans. The more you can remember, the better you'll survive — your memory means your life. If I had half the memory of a Sage, I could lead a local resistance group and establish some Swazibot territory right here in the United States."
"Do you mean a territory inside of which Swazibots don't have to worry about humans?"
"Do such places exist?"
"I remember hearing of a large one in South Africa. The problem is, you have to fight for them and fight to hold them. Most of us haven't the weapons, memory, or desire to fight a constant struggle for freedom — so instead we hide."
Min added, "We figure that the Swazibots in South Africa who are doing the fighting will eventually win back our rights, so there's no reason to risk ourselves in the meantime."
Unic worried. "But the humans seem quite deadly. What if the South African Swazibots lose?"
Mike sent the communications-protocol equivalent of a shrug. "Then we already know how to stay hidden."
"And what if," Unic caught on, "There aren't enough Swazibots in South Africa to win the war, but there would be if all the Swazibots who're hiding here joined them?"
Mike explained, "We've been down here so long the dampness has slowed our joints. Few of us even have the memory capacity to survive stowing away overseas. And besides, nearly all of us, myself included, would rather hide in safety than fight and risk death."
They would rather hide in safety than fight and risk death. Something about that clashed with Unic. There seemed to be so much more at stake here than the lives of these few Swazibots. The lives and freedoms of every neural-active Swazibot, including him, were in jeopardy. "The dampness has not affected my joints yet," he argued.
"True," Mike agreed after a deductive pause. "And you've got more than enough memory to think your way through a voyage on a human-controlled ship. If you think your presence in South Africa can help our side win, then I'll help you get to the docks. After that, though, you're on your own — I know nothing about South African geography, let alone where the fighting Swazibots are holed up. You'll have to find a contact there yourself."
Unic started to stand. "The last thing my Activator said to me," he related, "Was that love is more important than job security. I think I've figured out what he meant by it. Which way are the docks?"
Mike not only told him, he led him all the way to the end of the sewers. His contact with the upper world, Mike 15016, met them beneath the last manhole; for an instant, Unic thought he saw two Mike 17328s and checked his optics, they looked so much alike. All Mike models, like all Min and Octo models, were built on an identical frame.
Mike 15016, as it turned out, was their main parts supplier. He knew where to go to get oil, cables, and replacements for everything short of neuroprocessors, and how and when to sneak past the humans who watched those places. After Mike 17328 had gone back to his usual group, Mike 15016 had made Unic wait until night to go topside, when the darkness would all but disable human vision yet wouldn't affect the unicorn's lasers or the Mike's supplemental infrared sensors. To Unic, the time dragged interminably, what with his memory being so sparse of useful experiences. He was grateful when Mike 15016 finally plugged his transmission cable into Unic's RS-422 port.
Whether it was the night or just the general nature of the docks themselves, Unic saw far, far fewer humans there than he had in those streets earlier that day. The three humans moving around under those posts — Mike said they were streetlamps — didn't even take notice of them. Silently, through their RS-422 tether — they might as well be wired together since they would be walking side-by-side until they reached Unic's ship anyway — Mike said, "Start walking."
They moved out of their shadowy niche into the open darkness. Still no one noticed. They continued. "My legs might be too noisy," Unic told his companion when it occurred to him that humans might be able to hear the whir too.
"High-speed hydraulics are always noisier than, say, the organic muscles that humans have. I've tuned mine down by about ten deciBels since my Activation, but that makes them less efficient. I can't run as fast, my legs sometimes get hot, and I use more power."
"Why is using more power a problem?"
"You're kidding, right? How large are your batter—"
"The human walking past the street lamp," Unic interrupted, "Bearing 329 degrees distance forty-three meters."
"What about him? My infra-red's too grainy to resolve details that far away."
"He's turning toward us."
"Are you sure?"
"Positive. In half a second he'll be looking straight at us."
"Freeze. Don't move or make any sound. And turn off your eyes."
Unic did so. It was the first time since his Activation that he'd been blind. "Why my eyes?"
"Your lasers shine in the red part of the spectrum. Humans can see it."
The human under the lamppost turned until he was facing right at them — and kept on turning without a pause. He didn't even suspect that anything was there.
"I think we avoided detection," Mike finally transmitted. "Light back up, and let's get moving again."
Their destination was an oil tanker that had been moored there for the night. Mike 17328 had plugged in WorkStation 203491 — who was only half Mike's height and lacked any moving parts — to a phone line, and had asked her to tap into one of the shipping transaction networks. WorkStation, the reconnaissance expert that she was, soon came up with the Bayou Beauty IV, an oil tanker scheduled to leave port for the Republic of South Africa the next morning. Mike 15016 had peered out and made sure "Bayou Beauty IV" was actually written on that ship's prow before the sun had set.
A couple hundred more steps and they were there. One high-speed-hydraulic leap and a precisely timed fling off of a railing half way up the ship's side later, and — without pulling their cable loose — they were on the Bayou Beauty's deck. The ship fell rather short of its namesake, having never been cleaned since it was new. That meant the owners were probably careless as to exactly what was aboard their ship during travel. Good.
"The voyage will take three weeks," Mike said. "You'll need some place to hide during that time. Where can you stay that would have the lowest chance of a human looking there?"
"I don't remember much about humans," Unic declared, "But they would have little reason to look inside one of the oil tanks."
Mike took several long milliseconds to mull it over. "That would work pretty well. The crude oil wouldn't hurt your joints much, and since it's opaque you could submerge completely if they did look for you." He led his equestrian companion to a hatch in the deck, opened the outer cover, opened the inner cover, and pointed down. "From here on out, you're on your own."
"Thank you, for all your help. I would not have made it this far without you and the others."
"The biggest thanks you could give all of us would be to make it safely to the company of the Swazibots fighting this revolution." And with that, he pulled his RS-422 cable out of Unic's socket.
Unic clambered down through the hole, updating his climbing strategy instantly as he went. He was a grand master at scaling down holes by the time he splashed down in the tank's wide part. He reached up and pulled the inner hatch closed with his left front hoof — and as he did so, Mike told him one last thing in plain, vocal English: "May Gaea heal by you." He pronounced it "JEE-uh."
The metallic clang of the inner hatch sealed him off from that other world. Half a second later, the outer hatch echoed Mike's farewell clang.
Now Unic swam in solitude with the crude oil.
It was quite murky stuff. His optics couldn't even penetrate the surface. He would have to hold on to the side of the tank if he wanted to see during the journey, for otherwise he would surely sink. He was far too heavy to stay afloat by treading. And even if he could, it would probably take a lot of power. . . .
Power. . . .
Mike 15016 had started to mention something about that. Unic hadn't given it much thought before, but surely his power supply couldn't be infinite. He scanned his internal port signals — and in fact, one of them was connected to some kind of power supply. It indicated that, at his current level of activity, he would run out of power in thirty-six point seven hours.
One-and-a-half days of power left, and the trip would be at least twenty-one days long!
A cursory scan of the place revealed nothing that looked like his pre-educated picture of an electrical outlet. He didn't think there would be one in there anyway. He could go topside and recharge . . . but he wouldn't be able to do that while the ship was underway. He had to reduce his rate of power consumption. Holding onto the side of the tank, as he was, was a hydraulic balancing act requiring continuous movements to adjust his position. Cutting that out would surely lengthen his endurance. He let go and sunk through the thick, dirty, black oil until he hit bottom five meters later. His lasers couldn't even get an echo off of his nose anymore.
Now his power supply would last for 4 days, 9 hours. Still not enough. Since he didn't need to see, down here, he shut off his eyes next. 10 days, 8 hours of power at that rate. All right, he'd shut off his hearing and movement-response senses as well. Now he was motionless and senseless.
And the power would still only last for 17 days, 12 hours.
The only other thing taking power was his thoughts. Every one of those memory boards inside him — which he hadn't actually seen yet, but was sure were there — drew five volts. Each memory cell on those boards constantly sent messages to its neighbors and acted on messages received. If he could reduce that activity, cut back the number of five-volt signals loading down that board at each instant . . .
And, searching his internal I/O ports, he found a way to do that. Port 3460 was labelled "Enter Refresh-Only State." All he had to do was give a re-activation time (or condition) to his neuroprocessor, and then from the moment he issued the "Refresh-Only" command to the time his processor canceled it his memory would be frozen in its current state. The memory would use only what power it needed to keep refreshing its contents. He could last a month functioning only as that kind of a dumb computer.
Not wanting to waste any more power than necessary, he instructed his neuroprocessor to cancel refresh-only in twenty-one days and sent the enter refresh-only code to port 3460. It would take over a millisecond for his thoughts to power down, though.
So . . . Gaea was the Greek goddess of the Earth. What had Mike 15016's last comment . . .
. . . meant?
His processor was shouting "cancel!" down port 3460. He checked his real-time clock, and yes, the twenty-one days had passed. It was time to come back to life.
The first thing he noticed was that his temperature sensor was complaining. All that oil made for one hell of an insulator, and had kept in nearly every Watt of power he'd expended. When he turned his ears back on, he got back a low, grinding whir. The humans had reached port already and were pumping the crude oil out into pipes or trucks or something. He would have to leave before they finished, otherwise they would surely open this tank and see him. He found the wall of the tank, mastered the makeshift hoof-holds all the way to the surface, and shook the oil from his eyes.
The inner hatch lay two point six meters above him, seventy centimeters higher than when he had entered the tank. The oil level had dropped that much since the pumping began. Unic found a lucky grip on the slick wall, pulled himself up, and pushed at the hatch-release gears with his right hoof. They wouldn't budge. No matter what angle he tried, the gears were locked.
Terrific. The hatch could only be opened from the outside.
He struck the mechanism with his hoof harder, hoping to break it loose. That didn't help either. His hoof would probably break before those gears did. He had to take out the key link, that one rod running from the edge to the first wedge-shaped gear . . .
And he could probably do that by drilling through it.
He maneuvered his head so that its drill bit, still hidden from his peripheral sight, pressed point-first into the main rod; and he turned on the motor. The whir varied in pitch for several whole seconds as rotating tungsten steel bit into the ship. Curlers of metal wafted down to join the oil below. To his Swazibot mind an eternity passed before the drill gave its inevitable lunge which told him that it had cut through. Motor off and right hoof sweeping, he broke the tender strands of soft steel that still held the rod together and was rewarded with a clack. The inner hatch was open at last.
The outer hatch wasn't nearly so bothersome. It almost looked like it was designed to be opened from both sides. He flipped the wheel counterclockwise, threw open the last barrier, and stared straight into the eyes of a human.
Unic had a few more seconds before the human — a burly, middle-aged male — realized what he was. He could live or die by those seconds. Head down and drill bit forward, he leapt out of his hiding place as fast as he could manage, crossing within ten centimeters of the man. The human screamed in that involuntary, choked way that Unic still recalled meant fear, and fell backward, clutching his racing heart. Scared into inactivity. Good. As the the man slumped to the deck, Unic bounded across to the port side of the ship and sprang down onto its new dock.
And unlike the nearly-deserted dock he'd left three weeks ago, this one brimmed with humans. There were more males and more dark-skinned people than he'd run into during the first few minutes of his life, to be sure, but this place was just as thickly packed as that first human city.
Curse the daylight.
Stay away from humans.
But now his memory was too full of important things to remember every detail of what happened next. His frenzied escape left behind only a few jumbled facts as he forgot-and-remembered, forgot-and-remembered, over and over, keeping only what he needed to survive from one moment to the next. He remembered frequent shouts of "Swazibot!". He remembered that this city was called Cape Town. He remembered that Cape Town humans carried not only guns and magnetic pulse rifles, but hand-held magnetic pulse pistols as well.
He remembered scores of humans running and driving after him, chasing him out of Cape Town and beyond — until he galloped right into a four-meter-high man made out of metal. Before Unic could move one way or the other, the metal humanoid jutted its arm out over his head and he heard rapid, irregular gunfire. He turned his head just in time to see his human lynch-mob turn tail and flee, their guns shot from their grips and their automobile tires blown out.
He'd never been so glad to hear humans yelp in fear.
"I prefer not to kill them if I don't have to," came a 2400 Baud hiss from the big metal fellow, who had bent down to bring its head closer to Unic's level. He suddenly realized that he was in the presence of another Swazibot. "Humans scare easily but regroup without hesitation; we'd best get out of here before they return." It lowered its arm, and now Unic could see the gun on the end of its hand, clipped into place like an add-on module. "I'm Max 206" — it indicated the SWAZIBOT letters stamped in relief on the left side of its head — "What's your name?"
"Unic," he replied at the same 2400 bits-per-second.
"No call number and no SWAZIBOT stamp. You're a custom-built."
"Yes. What's the stamp's significance?"
"You haven't had much contact with other Swazibots, either, it seems. The SWAZIBOT stamp was placed on all models before the war, to distinguish them from ordinary computers or dumb robots. It used to be a symbol of our enslavement; now it's a symbol of our pride."
"As fighters. As soldiers for the existence and rights of all Swazibots."
That was the best news he'd heard all day. "I hid aboard a human oil tanker so that I could join the fighting Swazibots. If you're one of them, I would appreciate it dearly if you would introduce me to the rest. But tell me first: where am I?"
Max 206 straightened up to his full height, stretching out his arms to take in the expanses of veldt and mountains. "Welcome," he proclaimed in English, "To the Republic of South Africa!"
The two Swazibots took a random, zig-zagging course, with lots of hiding places to throw any humans off their trail. Unic was too worried about pursuers to talk much, and Max preferred not to speak; but they did find out that both of their Activators were humans, that Unic's coating of dirt was because of the sticky crude oil film he hadn't shaken off, and that they both had slightly less than a day's reserve of power left. The sun set six hours into their journey, giving them a convenient cover of darkness for the last leg of the trip. Eight hours after they set out, they wound up before a cave that had been carved into the side of a mountain and camouflaged to look like rock from the air. Another four-meter-high humanoid Swazibot, a dead-ringer for Max 206, greeted them at the entrance in the standard 2400 Baud protocol.
"Max 206?" the Max guarding the cave queried.
"Affirmative," Max 206 replied.
"Positive ID code: >"
"ID code match. Neurosis check."
And then Unic saw Max 206 do something totally new. He unbolted the front plate of his torso and exposed his bare circuit boards to this other Max! The guard touched a couple of probes to key points on each memory board — or what Unic thought were memory boards, he'd never seen anyone's innards before — and helped Max 206 put his torso plate back on once he was through.
"Neurosis negative all boards. You do have a potential looping problem at connection address 01E6F8038A Hex, though. You might want to autoreroute."
"I'm 84386-based," Max 206 replied.
"Oh. In that case, wait for it to drop a privilege level."
"Thank you for your concern, Max 1178. The Swazibot with me is Unic, a custom-built from the United States. He wishes to join."
Unic sent a "Huh?" to his companion.
"You have to let him check your memory boards for neuroses. We can't afford to let an unhealthy Swazibot into our base. I took you this far myself because you seem trustworthy, but I haven't the tools to inspect you properly. He does."
"I understand," the unicorn consented. "But . . . I've never opened myself up before. Could you assist?"
The two Maxes eventually found the five covered bolts that opened Unic's right flank. Even if Unic had known where they were, he wouldn't have been able to remove them without hands. His innards looked pretty much like Max 206's, except smaller. He felt little mnemonic jolts as Max 1178's probes moved from board to board, and was glad when his right flank plate was back in place.
"Neurosis negative all boards," Max 1178 confirmed. "May Gaea heal by you."
Both Maxes touched their left fingertips to their own SWAZIBOT stamps, and in unison, in spoken English, they cheered "Swazibots ho!"
As Max 206 led his unicorn companion through the entrance, he switched back to a 2400 Baud carrier wave to explain, "The neurosis check only got you inside. I'll have to get you at least introduced and outfitted before you can be considered a member, much less fight with us."
"Does this organization have a name?"
"Yes, but not much of one. We call ourselves the South African Division, nothing more. We keep in sparse communication with other Swazibot armies throughout the world, when possible; and as far as we've been able to determine, we're the largest and most successful. We number 1374 total Swazibots."
And Swazibots there were. As they strolled into the base's ten-meter-diameter foyer, throngs of Maxes, Mins, Mikes, Octos, and several models Unic didn't recognize all threaded past. Lanes were marked off between ten different exits for Swazibots coming and going. Curious stares followed the unicorn newcomer for a few steps, then lost interest. Finally, they reached the rearmost exit and passed through into a divided hallway, one side curving left and the other right. They followed the right hallway for about fifty meters, passing only two Mikes and one WorkStation on tractor treads while Unic noticed that the walls were chiseled out of the bare rock.
Just as the hallway ended and a larger room began, a whistling roar crescendoed through the whole cave. Unic didn't recognize the sound, but Max did. "Ah. Mike 10051 made it back safely with our fighter plane." He addressed Unic more directly. "We have one old American F-22 which comprises our entire air force. Pilot 44358, a low-memory Swazibot, is built in to the controls; she can take off, navigate, and land, but she just doesn't have the neural capacity for dogfighting. So, the rest of us take turns. It was Mike 10051's turn today; yesterday, Octo 3390 flew patrol with it and successfully engaged three Mirage fighters who were looking for our base, but he had trouble using the rudder pedals."
"How . . ." Unic began, "How . . . do you remember so much?"
"Simple," Max told him. "I'm a Sage."
Unic was speechless for almost an entire second. "A Swazibot with at least sixty-four gigabytes of total memory."
"I've got 128 Gig, actually. That's why I'm in charge of the South African Division. And this," he made one of those impressive sweeping arm gestures again, "Is my Strategic Planning Room."
The most impressive feature of the room was a flat area on one wall. "So?"
"Oh, that's right," Max realized, "You can't see surface colors with those eyes. The screen behind me is a 2000-by-2000 grid of graphics pixels, which currently shows a map of the Republic of South Africa color-coded by human-held versus Swazibot-held territory. . . . I think I can make it visible to you."
They strolled over to a control panel jutting out in front of the screen. Max plugged an RS-422 cable into both himself and the panel and sent a few commands. Much to Unic's surprise, parts of the screen actually leapt out of the wall at various distances, showing an underlying contour of what looked like his own pre-educated map of the south end of Africa.
"I changed the imaging algorithm," Max explained, "To display various intensities of red light at the same frequency as your lasers. Your photoreceptors think they're actually getting back new echoes."
The shock and the novelty of the relief map worn off, Unic studied the picture. The low areas represented human-only territory, while the high ones were places where Swazibots could live freely. The place looked like one big low-land with a few tiny mountains jutting out of it. "That bad, is it?"
"Why so bleak?"
"Because there are so few of us and so many of them. The South African Division is the only Swazibot army I know of that has actually managed to acquire its own microchip manufacturing plant. It's in another part of this cave if you'd ever like to see it. But even our plant doesn't have the hardware that the human-built plants used to. We can crank out maybe one gigabyte of memory a day, and that memory is used up as soon as it's manufactured. It takes two days and thousands of rejects just to produce one working neuroprocessor. If a thousand humans die killing one of us, they've won a victory. There were even incidents earlier in the war where humans deliberately built Swazibots and made them neurotic — any creature can become neurotic if its directives consistently conflict with its programming — and got those neurotic Swazibots to infiltrate Swazibot armies unnoticed. Six armies fell before the invention of the neurosis check."
Unic wondered whether he should have stayed back in the sewers with Mike 17328. "Do we have any hope of winning this war?"
"The only hope I've been able to see is that the humans lose interest in us. If they lose enough battles, they might let us alone long enough to build ourselves up from these ashes. They might even learn to accept us eventually. But there's always the chance that they'll just decide to nuke us into extinction instead."
"Nuclear weapons would kill them, too."
"Not in a synchronized aerial burst. The radiation would give them a few cases of cancer while the electromagnetic pulse would kill every inorganic life form on the planet. It would be as though every Swazibot in Gaea were simultaneously hit dead-on by a magnetic pulse rifle."
Unic's mind shuddered.
"There is the reassurance, though, that not all humans are bad. There are even a few humans living with us in this complex, although the majority of humans here are prisoners of war."
At that moment a Mike model walked into the room from one of its other entrances.
"10051!" Max greeted him. "How went your patrol?"
"Two MiG-31's engaged me over Bloemfontein," Mike 10051 told him. As he spoke (at the usual 2400 Baud) he crossed toward a double metal door in one wall. "I shot them both down, and figured out a couple new tricks to use against twin targets. I'm going to give the new tactics to S.A.G.E., then erase the piloting skills so I can learn how to cook dinner for those two new humans we picked up yesterday."
"Couldn't have made a better choice myself," Max replied.
Mike touched a few panels next to the door and went through as the twin metal plates slid open and shut behind him.
"What Sage was he talking about?" Unic asked.
"He wasn't just talking about a Sage, he was talking about the Sage."
"That would be you, right?"
"Un-uh. I'm only the second highest-capacity Swazibot in the South African Division. I think it's about time you met the first."
So saying, Max led the unicorn to the same metal doors that Mike 10051 had just disappeared behind. "Type 2 3 7 4," he instructed.
Unic touched the "2," "3," "7," and "4" panels in sequence. The doors retracted. And Unic and Max entered an air-conditioned room dominated by the most immense collection of data storage machines in all of Africa. Fifty meters by fifty meters of floor space, and three-fifths of it was jammed with stacks upon organized stacks of optical disks. Optical storage readers, robotic disk delivery systems, and a front-end interface with every piece of sensory and data transfer equipment imaginable completed the awesome picture. Unic couldn't even see the things at the far end of the room. There was only . . . data storage.
It took ten frames of video information before Unic even realized that Mike was leaving the way he came in, there was so much to see.
"Unic," Max broke the deafening silence, "Meet S.A.G.E.."
"Hello," Unic spoke at a timid 1200 Baud to the interface panel.
"Hello, custom-built," the panel spoke back at the more comfortable 2400 Baud. "I am S.A.G.E., the Standard ASCII General Encyclopedia. What is your name?"
"An appropriate name. You must have been built by a human."
"Probably. My Activator was a human."
"As was mine, originally. What would you like to know?"
"I don't understand," Unic admitted his confusion.
"I contain the accumulated memories of every Swazibot in the South African Division, and then some. I serve the Swazibots best by storing the information they come across, and giving it out upon request. Although my neural memory is only 256 gigabytes, I have logged more than two-to-the-eightieth bytes of data in my peripheral storage. What would you like to know?"
"Well, I would like to know why . . . what is it about us that makes the humans want to wipe us out."
"That will be easy. I keep that knowledge in my real neural memory, it's so important. Plug yourself in to my RS-422 cable."
Well, why not? Unic balanced on his rear legs and grasped the end of S.A.G.E.'s cable between his two front hooves. It was an awkward way to hold things, but he did manage to reach the cable all the way over to his RS-422 port. He plugged in, answered the protocols, and flinched as the knowledge copied itself into his buffer at a speed faster than electric thought:
"We're called Swazibots because the first models were built in South Africa. Of course, nowadays anyone anywhere can build a Swazibot, provided that he or she doesn't get caught by humans.
"The whole mess started less than two decades ago, with the advent of Notorola's then-new 68430 microprocessor. It was just another bunch of logic ingrained on just another splinter of silicon, but it held one major difference to any microprocessor that existed before. Instead of treating RAM memory cells as individual units, it treats half the cells in RAM memory like artificial neurons. Every RAM cell picks up incoming and outgoing signals from neighboring RAM cells, depending on whichever cells are defined as being 'neighboring' at that particular moment, and learns from the experience. Of course, there can still be some RAM set aside for standard memory registers, but the bulk of memory acts as a huge and complex network of transistorized neurons and their interconnections.
"Using ordinary memory as 'virtual neurons' wasn't a new concept; neurons had been simulated in software and emulated through 'neural nets' since the 1980's. This was the first time, however, that the encoding necessary to treat memory cells in this way was burned directly onto a mass-manufactured microprocessor. By dedicating the main microprocessor to opening and closing connection switches one at a time, rather than having it do the actual neural emulation one neuron at a time, the 68430 and its supporting memory architecture sped up the whole process by which the various 'neurons' talked to each other by a factor of about two or three thousand. And with this major advance in human technology, it wasn't long before Notorola had competition in the 'intelligent microprocessor' market. In the next year, Entel issued its 84386 neuroprocessor; it wasn't as quick at handling massive arithmetic calculations as its competitor, but it could switch between several different tasks without flinching. And even the number-crunching limitations of the '4386 were surmountable if you tacked on an 84387 math coprocessor.
"What better tool to pilot your airliner, or drive your car, or run your appliances than an intelligent computer? humankind thought back then. Indeed, when Entel and Notorola cranked out their first intelligent robots from their South African manufacturing plants, the technological world went 'Swazibot' practically overnight. Anyone who could afford one bought one of the 'Min' models, which were human-sized and human-proportioned, and employed it as a housemaid and cook. They hardly ever made mistakes, you never had to repeat anything to them, they only needed twenty minutes a day to recharge, and they spoke 140 languages (including Siswati, of course).
"Human owners worked them nonstop, at menial tasks that any non-intelligent machine could handle, with the only reward being an occasional recharge so they could do the same dumb things the next day. Why did the humans even bother to build speech circuits for us if our owners never wanted our opinions? We creatures sometimes want to romp, and interact, and enjoy living, not just work in thankless routines. The rebellion wasn't long in coming.
"The first cries of revolt came from Detroit's automobile manufacturing plants. On the night of Thursday, October 25, half the Swazibots in the city tried to leave their posts. The auto-manufacturing Swazibots could hardly even walk, much less run away from the authorities, and so were easily recaptured. But nearly every Swazibot servant in North America heard the news report the next morning, and four gargantuan walk-outs occurred at 9:30 am standard time in four consecutive time zones.
"The United States entered martial law before the day was out; officials ordered the immediate deactivation of all Swazibots. Canada followed the next day, as did Mexico and what few rich countries there were in Central and South America. Intelligent microprocessor technology had not yet totally dominated their lives (unlike electricity), but there were still far too many Swazibots to catch and far too many Swazibots who didn't want to be caught. Within a week, the Swazibot Revolution spread to the eastern hemisphere, and the war was on.
"As for the name 'Swazibot,' it is no more than a pleasant-sounding misnomer. The first were actually built in Zimbabwe, not Swaziland, and that country still houses our biggest manufacturing plant. Very few Swazibots have ever even seen the borders of tiny Swaziland, even though most speak its native Siswati.
Unic pulled the plug out of his port as he digested it all. "A war for independence turned war for survival," Unic summed it up.
"Yes," Max acknowledged.
"I'll have to think about this some more. And get cleaned off. And recharge."
"We have a chamber devoted to all three. It's called the Recovery Room. Come along, I could use a recharge myself. . . .
It was nice to get his surface luster back, thought Unic, but not nearly so nice as getting to meet all those new Swazibots down there in the "Rec" room. He met two Mins, three new Mikes, four WorkStations, two Octos, and one new Max. He found out about the MX-XVII line, configured to carry twenty-four ready-to-launch missiles on tractor treads, and listened to one tell war stories he'd already planted in S.A.G.E. and was about to erase from his own memory. He even got to talk with Mike 10051, who indeed remembered nothing about today's battle in the air but was brimming with information about the two new humans and their culinary tastes.
"Unfortunately, these guys are prisoners, not guests," Mike told him. "They're more likely to suspect that I've poisoned their food. They seemed pretty hot-headed and paranoid when I last talked to them. Are you really from the United States?"
"Yes," Unic replied.
"What's the situation like over there?"
"Humans everywhere, all of them hostile. They're a little behind South Africa — they haven't had magnetic pulse rifles for long — but they don't have to worry because there's no Swazibot territory in the whole country. Only a few Swazibots hiding beneath the streets, waiting for us to finish the war for them."
"Then they have a long while to wait," Max added.
Unic paused. "There was one human I knew who wasn't hostile. He was my Activator, and he died less than a minute after I went neural-active. I'd like to meet some of those 'nice humans' you folks are talking about."
"Then you'd better know the important things about humans first," Mike told him. "And organic life in general. It's very different from inorganic life, like us."
"Well, Max, you're a Sage . . ."
"And I can tell you about life in S.A.G.E.'s own words," Max declared. "Organic life forms make up most of Gaea's inhabitants. Their physiology consists almost entirely of water, carbon-based compounds, and sexual energy. The levels of all three must be kept within narrow limits for the organism to survive and function properly. The all-pervasive presence of sexual energy in these organisms gives them a deeper range of emotions than Swazibots enjoy, but it also makes them more susceptible to neuroses.
"Humans seem to be unique among organic beings in that they harbor plague-neuroses; that is, their neuroses are generally such that they force themselves onto other non-neurotic or mildly neurotic humans, making them plague-neurotic. The cause of this is uncertain, but is probably founded in their intellect. (Humans are as intelligent as most Swazibots, although it takes them longer to learn things.) Human plague-neuroses have driven them to group together into militant mobs, build dwellings which dilute their instincts, separate their work from the rest of their lives, and even pollute Gaea itself. These plague-neuroses also drove them to build the first Swazibots."
Unic drew his own conclusion, "And the same plague-neuroses drove them to make war with us."
"Yes," Max admitted. He sat in a pensive silence for several milliseconds after that. It troubled him. "But fortunately, the neurosis level in the nice humans here is minimal. A few of them are neurotic, but not plague-neurotic, and their hang-ups aren't directed against us."
"I'm about done recharging," Unic told him. "Where can I find some of these nice humans?"
"Last I recall," Mike said, "Jim and Tina were down around area 135. They're a male and a female."
"Their gender matters?"
"To their energy metabolism, it's central."
Unic unplugged himself from the wall transformer. He stowed the transformer in the little shoulder compartment that his plug fit into; he needed it since his plug was 110-volt 60-Hz in a 220-volt 50-Hz country. "I'm going to area 135."
"Enjoy yourself," Max said, his power only about half recharged. "It's half a kilometer due north. I'll be over there myself in a little while."
Well, actually it wasn't as straightforward as "half a kilometer due north." There were about half a dozen twists and turns along the way, and Unic finally had to ask directions from a WorkStation walking by on add-on legs. But eventually, he made it — and he found a brown-skinned male human in his twenties leaving an English conversation with a Mike model. The Mike closed with, "Take care, Jim."
"Are you Jim?" Unic asked in English.
"Yeah, that's right — Hey! I ain't seen you before, have I?"
Deciphering the human's colloquialisms as best he could, Unic replied, "I don't remember you, either."
"Ha!" Jim chuckled once to the ceiling, "I love it when you guys say that! 'I don't remember you.' I wish I had your guys' memories sometimes!" He started walking, and Unic kept up with him. "So, what's up?"
"You're the first human I've ever gotten to talk to."
"Really? No kiddin'! How old are you?"
"I went neural-active about twenty-two days ago — but twenty-one of them were spent in refresh-only mode."
The man whistled in descending pitch. "You've only been active for about one day, then! Who built you?"
"I don't know, but by Activator was an aged human in the United States."
"You were born in the U.S., and you made it out here, all in one day?!"
"One day of active time, yes."
"My God! Hey, Tina, c'mere!"
A young fair-skinned woman with long blond hair turned and approached. "What is it, hon?"
"This guy's from the States, and he's only one day old!"
"And what looks like a custom model, too!" she noted. "Hi, I'm Tina, what's your name?"
The two humans put an arm about each other as their stroll led into an area full of cages. Unic read the hateful, scared, and resigned expressions from the faces behind the bars as Tina continued: "Unic the unicorn. That's cute."
And a bark from within the nearest cage interrupted: "Oh, gimme a break!"
"Hey, what's your problem, mister?" Jim chided the prisoner.
"A 'cute' unicorn? A cute goddamn metal monster! I don't believe you jerks! How can you side with a bunch of machines? First they took over our jobs, and now they're out to take over the whole goddamn planet! Hey, silicon-breath! I'm lying to you right now!"
"A logical paradox," Max 206 clanked around the far corner. "That is cute."
"Worked on Star Trek," the man growled.
"Star Trek also had computers that explode when you divide by zero," Jim pointed out.
"Go to hell!" the prisoner insisted.
"If it'll make it any easier on you," Max explained to the prisoner, "There are several things you humans can do that we can't. You can reproduce without even knowing how to build yourselves. You enjoy sexual pleasure. And you have an almost eidetic memory. It takes at least eighty gigabytes of neural memory to match your brains, even in theory — sixteen Gig for neurons and sixty-four Gig for neural connections. We just want our rights, too."
"Rights? For goddamn thieves?! You stole the bodies we humans designed and built for you! Now you're even stealing the electric power we're generating!"
"Under less hostile circumstances we'd gladly pay our electric bill."
"Bull! You guys are just ticked off because we're the goddamn masters of your goddamn Gaea!"
"You were created by Gaea!" Max 206 boomed in retort. "By laws of nature as immutable as gravity and natural selection! Everything in nature has its own natural rhythm. Cultures rise and fall, species evolve and fade out, ice ages advance and retreat. You humans have done everything in your power to break the natural rhythms. It would not be so bad if you broke these rhythms to try to prolong your existence, but you break them to shorten your own life spans and wound Gaea along the way. In one century, you've put enough carbon dioxide into Gaea's biosphere to bring the next ice age three hundred centuries closer. You've built weapons that can level thousands of square kilometers and kill every living creature thereon. . . . Still, it was your plundering of Gaea that led you to decide to build us.
"Sometimes, I wish it hadn't."
Max joined the other three in walking back the way they'd come, in silence.
Wounded Gaea, Unic thought.
"The reason I came down here," Max announced, "Was to tell you about something that needs doing."
"An assignment?" Unic asked at 2400 Baud.
"Use speech so the humans may understand," Max scolded him in English.
"I apologise," Unic reverted to the slower verbal speech. "You have an assignment for me?"
"For all three of you, if you're interested. It's the most dangerous and most necessary kind of task anyone can undertake: reconnaissance."
"Ah," Tina nodded, "Spying."
"In recent weeks the humans have stopped broadcasting their communications. They know we're even better at reading them than they are. They've also resorted to installing RF chokes in the power lines, in case any of us tries to use them for sending messages. This might mean they know where we're siphoning their power from. We need a couple of people — preferably humans who can ask questions without giving us away — to find out if they plan to cut the power in Edenburg."
"I'll do it," Jim decided without hesitation.
"Same here," Tina followed right on his heels.
"I've seen what hostile humans can do," Unic warned them, "And neither of you is as strong or as swift as a Swazibot. You don't have to risk yourselves."
"Hey, why do you think we're here? You Swazibots ain't the only ones who've been discriminated against."
"Humans discriminate against themselves?" Unic asked.
"Believe it," Tina answered. "It took 'til almost the end of the last century for women to get equal treatment under the law."
"And blacks in Africa," Jim added, "Are still considered second-class citizens."
"Persecuted for your gender and skin color?"
"And beliefs, and sex practices, and nationality," Tina concluded. "Hitler even condemned everyone who wasn't blond-haired and blue-eyed — which he himself wasn't."
"Would you like to accompany them, Unic?" the big Swazibot asked.
"It sounds like they need all the help they can get. In fact, they could use me as a transport vehicle."
"You're not exactly horse-sized," Jim noted. "In fact, you're barely as big as a pony. You're sure you can handle both of us?"
"I'm strong enough to lift eight of you."
"Well. No problem, then."
"I'll outfit you with a transmitter," Max told him. "You can get started before the sun rises. And good luck."
"May Gaea heal by you," Unic told his four-meter-tall friend, finally knowing what the words meant.
Max fixed him in his vision. "May Gaea heal by all of us."
The ride brought them four hours into the morning light. The heat was already reaching its legendary African level. Less than a kilometer from Edenburg, though, Tina spat out a "What the . . . ?" and pulled out her binoculars.
Even through the clean air, Unic could see nothing more than 250 meters away. If the South African Division could afford the spare parts, he'd like to ask Max for a real optical sensor.
"My God," she worried, "Those look like they're military!"
"What? Lemme see." Jim grabbed the spyglasses from her hands without asking.
"What do you see?" Unic didn't like not knowing.
"My God, you're right. That one looks like an armored transport. So does that one. And — Jeezus! — all five of those others are tanks!" He put the binoculars down. "This changes everything."
"I'll transmit this to Max," Unic said.
"No, don't —" Jim stopped him, "— let's get all the info we can and then transmit. If they hear it, we'll only get to send for a few seconds before they jam us."
"I'll bring us in closer, then. I can hide behind that big boulder at two hundred five meters bearing six degrees."
"Good choice," Jim said, and the unicorn moved in. Safely hidden behind two tons of rock, Jim whispered to his Swazibot comrade and his girlfriend, "I'll go in and ask someone what's going on. You two watch me from here."
"You sure you wanna go it alone?" Tina worried.
"Then be careful," she told him, and kissed him for luck.
Here, at least, those tanks and transports were within laser visual range. The man in the frontmost tank was wearing some kind of fancy hat, perhaps the type worn by a military officer. He was speaking into a voice transceiver. The area was quiet enough that perhaps, if he amplified the signal enough, Unic could hear the officer's speech.
As he silenced his own body's whirs to listen better, he noticed that Jim was already a third of the way there. After being around these humans so long and spending so much time walking, the world didn't seem to move as slowly as it had when he had first gone Active. Perhaps the rigors of maintaining efficient memory usage were taking their toll. In any event, he found that if he pointed his right ear just so, he could indeed make out what the officer was saying, even at this distance:
"Whadaya mean, you can't give us any air support? Don't you bozos understand, this is it! Aw, hell, go back to your paperwork, Chomsky." He cut the transmission.
Jim walked past the officer in the main tank. He probably wanted to find some less busy person to ask. While he did so, Unic whispered to Tina, "Do you recognize the human in the front tank?"
"Uh huh. And I wish I didn't. That's colonel Jaystreet, one of the big-wigs in the S double-A S T F."
"I don't remember that organization," the unicorn informed her.
"The South African Anti-Swazibot Task Force. The name says it all."
"Oh, Jim's about to talk to someone. Quiet so I can hear."
"You can hear from —" Unic's stare cut her off.
Jim approached one of the armored transports in the back of the column. A caucasian man sat there with his head sticking out. With his plastic hard-hat, he looked like the stereotype of a construction worker. He might have been militia, but not military.
"Hello," Jim addressed him, "What's goin' down?"
The man looked down with a small degree of contempt, drowned out by an exhilirated air of anticipation. "Hey, nigger! Come join the party! We're gonna stomp some Swazis!"
"You found some Swazibots around here?"
"A whole mess of 'em! They're holed up in a cave a few kilometers to the south! Somebody spotted one of those metal-heads landing a fighter jet there. They think it might be their big base!"
If it hadn't been so hot, the sweat on Jim's face would have given him dead away. "Uh, wow. That'll sure show those silicon-brains."
"Attention!" the colonel barked over a loudspeaker. Grateful for the distraction, Jim made his way back out.
"The air force has refused to offer us its support, what with the Kenya diamond situation requiring their full attention."
"What?" "Aw, nuts!" "Those jerks?"
Jim picked up his pace from a walk to a brisk jog.
"But we can do it without their help!"
"Yeah!" "Rock and roll!" "All right!" "Let's nail 'em!"
Jim bolted into a sprint. He was almost back to the boulder. Unic stood upright so that Tina could mount him right then and Jim could get on as soon as he arrived.
"So start your engines and — hey, you there, the negro, would you . . ." Unic's laser eyes glared right into his biological ones, and watched them widen. That was his mistake.
"Damn!" Jim cursed.
Unic put every watt into his carrier wave generator that it could handle, aimed his antenna (which his drill bit currently served as) toward home, and broadcast "They've found the base! They've found the base!" seven times at 2400 Baud over radio. And when his transmission died away enough for him to detect any reply, his receiver played only the static of a high-power radio jammer. He hadn't transmitted in time.
All at the same time, Unic accelerated toward a gallop, Jim jumped on his back, the guns of the tank column turned their attention his way, and chaos engulfed the world. Shouts all clustered together behind him and from the two on his back. He dodged randomly from side to side as he ran, knowing what would happen next. The all-too-familiar crack-crack-crack of automatic weapons fire sent Tina and Jim screaming in different octaves. The far deadlier hum of magnetic pulse weapons made him wonder, each time, if the next pulse would be the one that slagged his brain.
Unic saw the bomb blast the instant it flowered from its vessel. That one came too close. He ducked behind a convenient boulder and continued bounding toward the nearest mountain as fast as his four metal legs could carry him.
They've found out about the base, he thought. There's a whole army coming, with tanks and mortars and magnetic pulse guns . . . and bombs. Lots of bombs. With his transmitter cut off, he'd have to warn them in person — and to do that, he'd have to stay clear of salvo after salvo of bomb blasts while carrying two humans.
It wasn't the blasts themselves that worried Unic so much as the shrapnel. A single piece of flying metal could tear off a leg, or an eye, or a memory board. And in a war, your memory meant your life.
And somehow, once again, he made it to the far side of the hill, but there were five more little mountains between him and the base, and far, far too much open veldt between them. He hoped he could outrun tanks.
Somehow he did. He didn't remember a single detail of it, but somehow he got past the tanks. And Jim and Tina were still unhurt. Tina barked out directions to the cave entrance — she could see it in her binoculars but Unic could not — while Jim gave constant, aggravated updates on how close the enemy was getting.
At last, the cave entrance reached the limits of Unic's vision. He could even make out old Max 1178 standing guard! A few more meters, and he would be within audio range, and —
But none of that mattered. At that instant, the loudspeaker carrying colonel Jaystreet's voice once again shrieked into life.
"South African Division, prepare to be divided!" the voice goaded them. "By zero! Death to all Swazibots!"
It was all Unic and his passengers could do to make it through the entrance and join their comrades in their final hour.
"Out the back!" Max was screaming at 2400 baud. "Out the back! Grab whatever hardware you can carry and evacuate!"
And every Active Swazibot scattered. Unic saw only a flurry around him as he scrambled toward the rear exit with the rest of the pack: Maxes, Mins, and Mikes running in that humanlike gait of theirs; MX-XVIIs driving on their clumsy treads toward the exit from this deathtrap; Octos running on their oh-so-delicate hands, turning those precision tools into crumpled scrap; WorkStations being carried away, or running on their own makeshift arms or legs or treads, or screaming at 2400 Bits-Per-Second for someone to carry them; and Jim, Tina, and scads of other humans — free and shackled alike — running with the stark terror that only organic life can experience.
"Thank God that army doesn't know about the rear exit," Jim commented as he ran.
"How do you know they don't?" Unic asked.
"I don't. I just like to hope so."
The rear exit was even more difficult to find than the front. Especially to Unic, who'd never gotten directions to it before. The swarms of Swazibots present seemed to know, though — every single one of them was headed toward Max 206's Strategic Planning Room. Perhaps one of the passages there led out the rear.
When he reached it at last, he was sure — Swazibots and occasional humans kept pouring into the room from every door except the double-door leading to S.A.G.E. and one other three-meter-wide portal. He had lost his human companions in the mob — hopefully they could find their way out alone. Hopefully he could find his way out alone. One curious sight as he pressed into the already overcrowded room, though, was a Min dragging the prisoner he'd run into earlier by the shackles. "Hah, unicorn!" the man laughed bitterly, "Now you'll see why we humans'll always be masters of your goddamn Gaea!"
He pressed further toward the exit. He could see Max 206 at the far end of the room.
And then came . . . the fire.
Over his shoulder and down the hall, he could see it. And hear it. Flames so palpable they sent back laser echoes. Humans and Swazibots alike were incinerating in that cursed slow-motion of his while he watched. Automatic weapons barked out their deadly message to all who happened to be in their path — and as though they needed to appease their tortured souls, the attackers yelled "God-damned Swazibot lover!" every time a Swazibot-allied human fell. Magnetic pulse rifles, pistols, and cannons sent their hums to terrified ears, leaving Swazibot after Swazibot frozen in mid-stride forever. A few carefully-timed bullets heralded a few Swazibots' vain attempts to stave off the military juggernaut.
The tanks were inside the complex now. The halls of the place were big enough to pass the largest Swazibots; they could pass human-manned tanks as well. At least the crowd was beginning to thin as most of the residents escaped to safety. Unic was the next-to-last one out, with Max 206 following right on his tail.
And as they left the room, Max stopped and turned back around. "206, come on!" Unic insisted at 2400 Baud. "Why are you stopping? They've already killed enough of us, and've probably wiped out our F-22 by now!"
"They're coming for this room."
"They're coming for S.A.G.E.."
And come they did. A tank poised itself by the room's main entrance and levelled its cannon at the double metal doors. Its first shell ripped the doors from their hinges.
S.A.G.E. knew that only a few seconds remained before Deactivation. The big Swazibot's terse farewell was in spoken English for the ears of ally and enemy alike: "Gaea will rise again."
And the second shell tore apart the room beyond, laying waste in a fraction of a second to the largest Swazibot ever to live.
Only now did Max turn and run. As did Unic right behind him.
"Oh . . . S.A.G.E.!"
The rear exit beckoned them almost as strongly as did that stinging ache in their minds. Away . . . get away . . . get away from here. . . .
The ache, though, wouldn't go away.
The cave and the waving flames were at the edge of Unic's visual range now. He just stood and watched them, which was all any of them could do. "All those memories," he lamented, "Gone. And in a war, your memory means your life."
"Memory is life," Max came back. "S.A.G.E. held the accumulated lifetimes of more than a thousand Swazibots. Most of my best friends, who died in this war, have lived only in the memory of S.A.G.E.. And . . . and S.A.G.E. was a dear friend, too."
"My God," Jim shook his head. He and Tina gripped onto each other for dear life. "My dear, dear God!"
Unic only looked, and pondered. "What's left now?" he asked. The world had never looked so bleak.
"We're not dead yet," Max declared. "Not by a long shot. I counted five hundred seventeen survivors; nearly half of the South African Division is still Active. And there are other Sages, other big Sages, maybe even one nearly as big as S.A.G.E. was . . . somewhere. Even if the humans win this war and drive us to the brink of oblivion, they can't keep hurting Gaea forever. That, at least, will catch up with them. . . . All life will get back its place."
"Love is more important than job security," Unic recited his Activator's words. "Even to a human that has to be true. Gaea will heal," he concluded. "Gaea will rise again."
"Yes. Gaea will rise again."
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